How to Ask About Pronouns, and Why You Should

When Archie Bongiovanni started coming out about five years ago, having conversations about their identity was sometimes an exhausting task.

The cover of "A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns." Pronouns pbs rewire
“A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns,” a graphic novel by genderqueer cartoonist Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson, comes out later this month.

Bongiovanni identifies as genderqueer and uses the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them” to describe themself, rather than gender pronouns of “she” and “her” or “he” and “him.” They’re a cartoonist, with comics appearing regularly on Everyday Feminism and Autostraddle.com, and they’re open about their queer identity in their work.

But explaining their identity wasn’t always a simple process—during their coming out process, people they knew and complete strangers sometimes balked at the concept of non-binary gender identity (meaning identifying as something other than a man or a woman) and gender-neutral pronouns.

For a lot of people, non-binary identity and gender-neutral pronouns are entirely new ideas.

“You’re basically having to define and explain your identity over and over again, and oftentimes folks are down and cool and willing to learn and hold onto their questions and judgments,” Bongiovanni said. But sometimes “you’re explaining yourself, your body, your gender to folks who are pessimistic or judgmental or downright mean.”

Reaching out and calling in

In an effort to make the process a little bit kinder, Bongiovanni teamed up with one of their best friends, Tristan Jimerson, to create a book they hope will help everyone—from queer people who are trying to come out, to their families, to coworkers who just want to do the right thing by their work buddy. The short graphic novel, “A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns,” will become available later this month.

Bongiovanni’s coauthor, Jimerson, is a cis man, meaning he identifies with the gender he was assigned at birth. By collaborating, they hope to reach beyond the queer community and make the book a useful resource to people who are totally new to trans and gender non-conforming identities. It also touches on other gender-neutral pronouns beyond the most prevalent “they” and “them,” including “ze” and “hir.”

“This book is for your mom or your boss at work—it’s work appropriate,” Bongiovanni said. “It’s not going to necessarily explain genderqueer identities, but it’s for meeting people halfway.”

How to talk about it

This is the first rule of thumb: “You can’t assume anyone’s pronouns based on their gender presentation, haircut, clothing, makeup or no makeup, because the truth is anyone who presents any way can use any pronoun,” Bongiovanni said. “If you’re meeting new people you can’t assume anything about what pronouns to use.”

Portrait photograph of young person. Pronouns pbs rewire
Emma uses she/her or they/them pronouns. Hear Emma’s story at TheyThemProject.org. Image from They/Them Project – TheyThemProject.org – by Brent Dundore – BrentDundore.com.

As being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer has become more accepted, more people have started taking on these labels, and others, to identify themselves. And despite decades of stereotypes about LGBTQ people in popular culture, you can’t assume you know how someone identifies just by looking at them.

That’s why normalizing talk about gender pronouns in places where all types of people spend time together—like work and school—is key, Bongiovanni said.

“The more you normalize it into an everyday thing the better,” they said. “If it’s normalized when meetings start with name and pronouns, or all the emails are signed with your name and your pronoun, the more regularized that is, the more… (it) shows that it could be a safe space to come out.”

Normalizing the sharing of pronouns is a form of allyship, Bongiovanni said. It’s important not to wait until you have someone on your work team or in your organization you think might be trans or gender non-conforming to start talking about it, they said.

“I think if workplaces and businesses and places where we exist don’t catch up and get to speed when it comes to inclusive language and good LGBTQ policies, they’re going to get left behind,” Bongiovanni said.

Because LGBTQ topics, especially those related to gender, can be controversial, it can be scary to bring up at work. You also run the risk of saying the wrong thing and hurting someone.

Portrait photograph. Pronouns pbs rewire
Phillipe Cunningham of the Minneapolis City Council is the first trans man of color to be elected to political office in the United States. Cunningham uses he/him pronouns. Hear Cunningham’s story at TheyThemProject.org. Image from They/Them Project – TheyThemProject.org – by Brent Dundore – BrentDundore.com.

But, with practice, and a little bit of reading, considering gender identity will get more natural with time. The key is “sucking up any discomfort you might have about starting these conversations,” Bongiovanni said. “Just starting it and letting it get easier with time.”

Resources like “A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns” and the They/Them Project can teach you how to talk about gender identities in a respectful way. Though every person is different, Brent Dundore, the photographer behind the They/Them Project, a visual and audio series that features gender non-binary folks telling their own stories, said everyone he’s interviewed has said they wish more people would just ask them what pronouns they use. In fact, it’s much more polite than assuming.

Dundore, who is a cis man, believes asking that question is the scariest thing for cis people. When he started the portrait and podcast project about a year and a half ago, he was nervous to broach the subject.

“I learned that it’s okay to ask people their pronouns, also that everybody has a unique story how they came to use a specific set of pronouns, and that everyone’s story is different,” he said. “I have learned gradually how little I knew (about gender), even while trying to educate myself.”

Bongiovanni said that when you do ask someone their pronouns, it’s tactful to offer yours first, and also to make sure you ask everyone in the group so you’re not singling any one person out.

Why it matters

Dundore said he’s also learned how hurtful it is to be dismissive of people’s pronouns. We all want to be understood and embraced for who we are. When someone’s pronouns are disrespected, it can feel like their entire identity is being disregarded.

Portrait photograph. Pronouns pbs rewire
Xochi uses they/them or ne/nem pronouns. Hear Xochi’s story at TheyThemProject.org. Image from They/Them Project – TheyThemProject.org – by Brent Dundore – BrentDundore.com.

“Each time someone uses the wrong pronoun, it feels like a brick or a stone in a backpack, and at the end of the day I have this super heavy backpack I’m carrying around,” Bongiovanni said.

But “that (heavy load) can be uplifted by someone” using the correct pronouns, they said. Using the right pronouns for someone shows “basic respect for each other and empathy for each other.”

If you are a cis person who’s educated about trans and non-binary identities, you can start conversations with other cis people to spread the word, Bongiovanni said. You can also respectfully correct someone who uses the wrong pronouns for someone else. In their opinion, this stuff isn’t going anywhere.

“The number of folks who are identifying as genderqueer, gender fluid, trans, non-binary is just getting larger,” Bongiovanni said. “You’re seeing kids younger and younger identifying as such. I think it’s good practice for folks and businesses to jump the gun (on learning and using gender-neutral pronouns) instead of waiting.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.